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How to Create a Compelling Ostinato

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The ostinato pattern is a staple of modern music; across every genre you'll find countless examples of pieces that at their core revolve around a single repeating ostinato pattern.

In this tutorial we'll look at how to create an ostinato pattern from a simple outline, give it a unique and intriguing sound, and use this pattern as a basic building block for creating your own original compositions.

Twice a month we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Audiotuts+. This tutorial was first published in September 2008.

Step 1 - Choose a Foundation Instrument

Although everyone has their own method of working, when I write a piece from an ostinato ground up my first priority is often to choose my foundation instrument. The right color choice can often act as your guide and spark your creativity when faced with the ever intimidating blank screen when you first get to work.

For this example I've chosen an acoustic guitar harmonics patch. What I like about this sound is that on its own it's unique and catches the interest of your ear, but is smooth and nonchalant enough that it can fall into a background supportive role when I need it to. Be creative with your choices, but when experimenting with the techniques in this tutorial I suggest you choose a sound with a clear and discernible attack.

Step 2 - Create a Basic Pattern

Creating the musical element is really quite simple. In this case I chose to base my piece around a C minor triad in 12/8 time. The choice of key was a somewhat arbitrary decision. I'm sure some of the purists among you may disagree with me but I generally believe that in electronic music, where instrumental ranges are of little importance, your choice of key is generally left up to whatever you feel like making it.

Here we see that the pattern is very plain and simple, first running up the notes of the triad for a beat and then a variation for the other 3 beats. Don't worry about how plain this sounds, the next step will be to make it more interesting.

Basic melody

Step 3 - Spice Up the Pitches

Now that we have a basic framework in place we add some variation to make this pattern more interesting. I've kept the general outline of a C minor triad in place, but shifted a few of the pitches to notes that are in a C minor scale but are not in the basic triad. Note how the first part of the pattern is still very much a C minor chord; this establishes that C minor is our home. The low C on every downbeat reinforces this sense of stability.

The A flats towards the end of the pattern give a sense of tension that is lifting us out of that C minor comfort zone, creating a constant sensation of tension and release. Pay attention to how this pattern feels like it is constantly moving forward, whereas the basic pattern from Step 2 is somewhat static and can put you to sleep pretty quickly in comparison.

Varied pitch

Step 4 - Expanding Our Sense of Space

Now that our musical pattern has been worked out and we're satisfied with it, we can have some fun with the way this pattern sounds. In this step I panned our main Guitar Harmonics track completely to the left, then created a second track with the exact same settings and panned it all the way to the right. I copied and pasted the musical pattern so each of the two tracks has the exact same pattern.

Next I went in to each pattern and began stripping away notes, so that each note will only ever play on the left or right side at one time. Although the choices were somewhat "random", I wanted to be sure that I never deleted more than two notes in a row from one side. Because the low C is so fundamental in maintaining our sense of the downbeat, I kept it in both the left and right.

Also notice that to make the pattern an extra bit more interesting I expanded the "split" over two measures instead of just one. This stereo split gives us a sense that the pattern is now much bigger and omnipresent. The sense of swirling also makes it a little more difficult and fun to follow, which in turn makes it more interesting for the listener.

Stereo placement

Step 5 - Color Up the Sound

Before I'm fully satisfied with the pattern I want to make some tweaks to the color of the sound. Because I made sure to choose a foundational instrument that I really liked, these changes will be somewhat minor and are purely for the sake of making the overall sound of the pattern a bit more unique.

How to use plug-ins and effects is beyond this article, but there would be little point in copying my settings anyway. What I did for this example was add a slight touch of distortion, a phaser and auto-filter, and EQd much of the high end off to give a very smooth and watery feel to the sound.


Step 6 - Beginning to Create a Composition

We've got an interesting ostinato pattern... now what? Well, now we can use our ostinato as a basic building block to create a longer piece of music. Looping a C minor chord for eternity would probably drive most people to turn off your music if they don't fall asleep first, so let's use our basic outline and adjust the pitches slightly over a basic chord progression.

In this example I've adjusted the pattern to fit a somewhat common chord progression. The fact that this chord progression is not "revolutionary" or entirely unique is not particularly important, because we've already made sure that our basic underlying pattern will be catching the listener's attention. Knowing that your piece will automatically have a strong backbone makes the decisions needed to fill it out a piece of cake because they are nothing to get too stressed over.


Step 7 - The Final Result

Here is an example of how I used this simple ostinato pattern we created in this tutorial to compose a full piece. As mentioned in the previous step, once I had the basic pattern in place, creating an original two minute composition was rather quick and painless.

Final result

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